Recruit’s Fatal Leap

On 29th September 1914, the body of Gunner John Wilson, of the Royal Garrison Artillery RGA, was recovered 200 yards north of the bridge. Gunner Wilson, a former coal miner from Durham, was last seen on 19th September 1914 jumping from the bridge. He had spent the evening drinking in local pubs and his brother, James, who joined up 5 weeks earlier, gave evidence. When questioned he confirmed that John was on good terms with his wife and that he didn’t know of any “trouble that might have explained his subsequent action”, only that he was “very wild and daring when he had had drink”. He confirmed that his brother was a strong swimmer and had been used to water all his life. Another Gunner, who had been with him in the town, said he was not dead drunk, but had had “a lot of ale and was staggering about”. Private Foster, of the 4th Royal Sussex (Territorials), gave evidence of seeing a man in khaki standing on the parapet of the bridge. Before he could get to him, he put his arms up in the air and jumped, “as if going for a swim”. He jumped off the south side of the bridge, but the current, running at seven miles an hour at the time, carried him north. People ran along the quay side and a boat was put out. Police Officers ran to Denton Island, thinking he might be carried there. All to no avail, as Gunner Wilson had disappeared. His body was recovered 10 days later. He was in full military uniform, with the exception of his hat. He had 1s.10d. in his pocket, together with two affectionate letters from his wife. A verdict of “Death from misadventure” was returned. The photograph, of the bridge from the south side where Gunner Wilson jumped, is dated c.1920.

What makes this story even more sad for Gunner Wilson’s family is that less than 3 weeks later, his brother, Gunner James Wilson, who had given evidence at the inquest, also died at Newhaven. On the morning of 15th October, the men in Gunner Wilson’s company had been doing their physical drill. The training had started at 9:15 with bending sideways, forwards and backwards and they had just begun the running exercises. After going about 40 yards, Wilson dropped to the ground. Thinking he had fainted, Sergt. Goldsmith got the class to pick him up, after which he then “bent his head forward to try to make him come to”. Lieut. Reid ordered his removal to the Military Hospital, but Sergt. Goldsmith believed that he was already dead. Surgeon-Lieut. J McGlashan, who undertook the post mortem, found his heart to be greatly enlarged (being twice its normal weight) and said that death was due to cardiac failure. Another brother of the deceased, Gunner Andrew Wilson RGA, stationed at Huggett’s Farm, said that his brother had been away from work for about 26 weeks prior to enlisting due to shortness of breath and a flutter round the heart. Gunner A. Wilson explained that his brother “was so keen to get into the Army that he would not ‘let on’ about it”. He didn’t know whether he had been medically examined on enlisting. Surgeon-Lieut. J. McGlashan said “if there was an examination it could not have been a strict one. The recruits in Lord Kitchener’s Army are now being re-examined and large numbers are being rejected”. The jury returned a verdict of “Death from natural causes”.

Both men are buried at Newhaven Cemetery.

By Jenny Flood – from a story in the East Sussex News, 1914

Photograph: Newhaven Museum ref. A017-017